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Report: No Innate Gender Difference

By Kathleen Pond, Crimson Staff Writer

When Lawrence H. Summers speculated in January 2005 that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” contributed to the lack of women in science and engineering, he added, “I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong.”

Now, according to a National Academy of Sciences expert panel, Summers’ wish has come true.
The expert panel said in a report released yesterday that “bias and outmoded practices”—not  biological differences—explain why women continue to be underrepresented on the hard-science faculties of universities and colleges.

“Studies of biological differences between men and women have not found any significant differences that can account for the lower representation of women in faculty positions in science,” said panelist Barbara J. Grosz, the Higgins professor of natural sciences at Harvard.

The report found that women are now strikingly well represented among the student body of college science and engineering departments. “Women have earned more than half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering since 2000,” according to the report.

The panel’s chairwoman, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, told The Crimson in a phone interview yesterday that “there are all of these myths about why women don’t go into science. They do go into science. It’s at the PhD level when things change.”

“Women take the classes but don’t get hired as professors,” said Shalala, the president of the University of Miami.

In the social and behavioral sciences, for example, women have garnered more than 30 percent of doctorates over the past three decades. But they now hold only 15.4 percent of full professorships in those fields.

Women are falling off the tenure track at several junctures even after the PhD. For instance, the report finds, female academics are 40 percent more likely than their male counterparts to take non-tenure-track adjunct posts—which are less prestigious and less lucrative.

According to the report, women faculty members are “generally paid less and promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors, and hold fewer leadership positions,” and these discrepancies are not found to be based on work or performance measures.

Interestingly, though, once female and male scientists reach the final hurdle on the path to a full professorship—the tenure review—they receive tenure at roughly similar rates, the panelists found.
The panel was stacked with figures closely linked to the controversy surrounding Summers’ January 2005 remarks and their aftermath.

It included one of Summers’ former bosses, Nannerl O. Keohane, a member of the Harvard Corporation—the one body with the power to fire the president. The Crimson reported this past June that Keohane had privately advocated for Summers’ ouster.

Panel chairwoman Shalala has been mentioned as a potential successor to Summers, though she has said publicly that she has “no interest” in the Harvard post.

Another panelist, the recently deceased University of California-Santa Cruz chancellor Denice D. Denton, attended the January 2005 conference where Summers made his now-notorious remarks—and was an outspoken critic of Summers’ speech afterwards.

The panel also included Elizabeth S. Spelke ’71, Harvard’s Berkman professor of psychology. And Grosz herself headed Harvard’s Women in Science and Engineering task force, appointed by Summers last spring.

Summers, at a conference in Singapore, did not return an e-mail message seeking comment.
The report calls for “immediate, overarching reform and decisive action by university administrators, professional societies, government agencies, and Congress.”

“Universities need to coordinate their efforts and work with one another,” said Grosz. “There is institutional change needed....There is still a long way to go.”

—Staff writer Kathleen Pond can be reached at kpond@fas.harvard.edu.

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